Are Facials Good For Your Skin?

Not really—and here's why.
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Michelle Villett
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Not really—and here's why.

Did you hear the one about the worst facial in the world? No, really—a friend sent me a link to this Buzzfeed story about Singaporean beauty blogger Juli of Bun Bun Makeup Tips, whose pre-facial skin started off looking like this:

Juli of Bun Bun Makeup Tips

Cute! (Love that red lip on her.)

Now, you might want to sit down for this next one. This is poor Juli's face only four days after the facial:

Worst facial in the world - day 4

What in the everloving F just happened here?

I'll give you the Coles Notes. I couldn't find any details on her blog about what, exactly, the facial entailed, but we do know that Juli has sensitive, acne-prone skin. (Ding! Ding! Ding! That alone should've rung alarm bells.) I'm not sure what products they used in the treatment, or how much manipulation was done, but let's just assume it was your stock-standard facial. Cleansing, exfoliation, steaming, extractions, mask, moisturizer, done.

Things seemed fine right afterward, while Juli was still lying on the spa table:

Worst facial in the world - day 1

But within 24 hours, things started to go south.

Worst facial in the world - day 2

The next day, the breakouts were so bad that she decided to wear a mask!

Worst facial in the world - day 3

(I love that masks are totally acceptable in Asia. Not that I would EVER want Juli's problem—but throwing on a mask and letting your pimple "breathe" just seems like an easier, healthier way to deal versus fiddling around with concealer. How many times have I cancelled plans because of a pimple when I could've rocked one of these babies?)

The same day, she went back to the facial place (MORE ON THAT IN A SECOND) and had the pus extracted. Quote: "The facial therapist simply said I have sensitive skin and extraction of the pus would solve everything."

Riiiight.

That didn't go so well. Shocka! By day four, she was dealing with an outbreak that looked like little barnacles:

Worst facial in the world - day 4a

She went back to the spa for more punishment I mean a second extraction (with bonus greasy application of anti-bacterial gel), but alas, things just continued to get worse. The next day, the pustules started to merge.

Worst facial in the world - day 5

Finally, on day six, she got help from a dermatologist, who told her it was an allergic reaction and that the extractions had made it worse, not better. She was given a steroid and antihistamines to treat the allergy.

Legal action is now pending against the spa... and Juli is now dealing with the aftermath of post-inflammatory pigmentation.

Insane, right? But I wanted to share this story with you because it helps me explain an opinion I've long held but never really revealed. And that is...

Facials aren't that good for your skin.

You heard me. I know it's kind of a radical statement because beauty editors usually LOVE them, but I don't—and never have. In fact, long before I was a beauty editor, my mother instilled in me that they weren't such a good idea... and despite having tried, oh, 50 or more of them as freebies over the past few years, I still believe that she was right!

(Don't agree? I feel I must first caution you now against Googling stuff about facials or you're bound to run into some sketchy content about sperm. I learned that the, er, hard way.)

But here, I'm going to present my (PG-rated) case...

1. Facials can make your skin worse, not better.

Um, HELLO, poor Juli. I bow down to the woman for sharing her story with such graphic photos, because there's no way I'd be brave enough to do that. (Not that my experience even slightly compares to what she went through, but I am so vain, I only documented my Oil Cleansing Method horror show with words, not images.)

Anyway, nobody wants to be a Juli. And the thing is, it's so easy for that to happen, especially if you've got sensitive skin. Apparently, this means a whopping 60 percent of us!

Even if you go into the spa saying you have sensitivity, the fact is that most facials are not that well customized to individual skin types, and many aestheticians just don't have the in-depth understanding of skin types and ingredients. There's always the danger that introducing a new ingredient (and massaging it into the skin) could backfire.

According to Juli's dermatologist, the most common sources of skin reactions are herb and plant extracts, but really, it could be anything—and I know this from when I consulted MY derm, Dr. Nowell Solish, during my whole OCM disaster. He wasn't sure if I reacted to the olive oil, castor oil, or both; if massaging them into my skin was too much manipulation for me to handle; OR if the oils I'd purchased had been sitting around the health food stores for too long and had become impure.

Green tea leaves

We'll never really know—but he said that even just ONE exposure to something your skin doesn't like can set off a horrible reaction. Thankfully, mine wasn't anywhere near as bad as Juli's, but it's certainly not a fun time when you're doing stuff for your skin that's supposed to make it look better, not worse.

If you've found a facial treatment that works for you, then great. But if you have any sort of sensitivity—especially if you're prone to acne, rosacea or eczema—then I would exercise extreme caution with trying new treatments. It's so risky!

2. Any benefits you get from a facial are only temporary.

Can anyone say what long-term benefits you get from a facial? I don't know of any. Sure, you get a glow, but at best it lasts for just a few days.

I've always thought that the main benefit (which is still a valid one) is the forced relaxation. I mean, think about it. Your life is so busy, you're rushing around from one place to the next from morning 'til night... is it any wonder you look better after going into the spa in the middle of the day and snoozing on a spa table for an hour? Your body gets to let go and relax for a bit, so of course you're going to look better coming out, no matter what products they put on you.

The other thing is the massage. That alone can plump up your skin temporarily and get your blood circulating... so again, it might not be the products.

But seriously, speaking of products, a spa facial may use "professional-strength" exfoliators and such, but they're never going to be comparable to something you'd get under the care of a medical doctor.

(NOTE: Oxygen facials might be an exception to all of this. They're not at all like traditional facials—instead, a stream of pressurized oxygen pushes a hyaluronic acid-based serum into the deeper layers of your skin. I don't have an unlimited budget, so I can't say for sure, but apparently this mechanism does help with wrinkles and acne when you get them on a regular basis. At least, that's what Madonna's makeup artist, Gina Brooke, told me last month—more on her soon!)

3. You get better (and more cost-effective) results from derm treatments.

A monthly facial is not going to improve your wrinkles. Or get rid of your acne. The extractions might help, but they could just as easily make things worse.

Frankly, if you're getting facials for anything other than a short-term glow and relaxation, you're better off going to a dermatologist. These days, you can do your own mini-facial at home with an exfoliation and masking routine, using some very decent products. (Read my PMM—peel, mask, moisturize—post for more on this. It's the new GTL!)

But for results-oriented exfoliation or wrinkle correction, a derm is a better bet. Would you rather get a $100 facial that lasts four days, or put that towards $400 worth of Botox that lasts four MONTHS?

Woman with injection

Now, I'm not advocating Botox either way, but in the right hands it can make a dramatic, long-lasting difference. Same with fillers, chemical peels, microderm, antibiotics or spironolactone (for acne) and laser treatments. I don't think anybody needs to go crazy with this stuff, but if you do have a skin concern, a professional opinion might be money better spent versus a temporary fix. However, the key is that you need a doctor you trust, who won't overdo it. (Not an easy task for sure!) Also, I'm a huge believer in beauty from the inside out—so at the same time, it's a good idea to work on internal things like your diet, sleep habits and stress levels.

Now I'm ready to get jumped on by all the aestheticians out there. Ready... GO! But before you do, know that what I'm saying doesn't apply to all of you. Just that there is some very valid risk in the wrong hands with the wrong type of ingredients. And y'all are expensive!

I also want to say that I think aestheticians play a VERY essential role—along with beauty blogs, obvi—in helping educate people about good skincare at home, including the importance of sunscreen. Dermatologists rarely take the time to tell you what to use (and they usually aren't too familiar with all the zillions of products out there). I know, because I'm always interviewing them.

Now, a couple more things to know if you DO get a reaction to a facial—or anything else you've done to your skin:

It does not have to get worse before it gets better.

LIES! I can't stand when people bring this up as if it's perfectly normal to suffer for months with horrible, scarring breakouts while you "purge" and your skin "adjusts." Who the heck wants to live that way? At the very least, you'll have to deal with the hyperpigmentation (which can take forever to get rid of, especially if you have darker skin). And worse, if you're prone to pitted scarring, then you could cause permanent damage.

I think if you're experiencing anything unusual and severe after doing something to your skin—whether acne or a rash or dry patches—then it's a sign that your face is crying for help. Get help; don't make it suffer.

Get thee to a dermatologist.

Don't go back to the facialist that did you wrong. In Juli's case, the double round of extractions made her skin freak out even more.

And don't just wait it out. When I had the reaction to the Oil Cleansing Method, it came upon me very gradually, over several weeks. First as unusual dryness, then a rash, and then the breakouts (which got worse and worse). I should've gone to a derm right away when I noticed the change in my skin, instead of waiting until it was a full-blown infection.

You may have to shop around for the right doctor.

I did (and so did Juli). The first guy I went to wasn't even a dermatologist, I later found out. (In Canada, you can still put yourself out there as a "skin doctor" and even open your own clinic without having the qualification of dermatologist. Who knew?! You've been warned.) Doc #1 just didn't have the breadth of knowledge I needed to diagnose and treat my condition. Thankfully, I hot-footed it to Dr. Solish when things weren't improving, and he immediately knew what to do. Apparently some antibiotics are more effective than others, and with sensitive skin you have to be careful about drying topicals. He ended up giving me a better oral antibiotic and told me to stop using the topical (which didn't do anything anyway), and once things quickly calmed down in a week or two, did laser on the redness.

You might need an oral medication.

Antibiotics

Okay, not a doctor here, so this is not medical advice! All I want to say is that sometimes there's no "natural" way to solve a skin reaction like the one Juli had, and like I had two years ago. I'm the biggest beauty hippie, so I'm all about the natural route—but that's what probably stopped me from seeking help sooner. Unfortunately, the infection I got was so deep that it could very well have taken months and months for my body to fight it on its own. A six-week course of antibiotics was so much easier and less stressful than having to deal with it on my own.

Same thing with Juli, but in her case she needed anti-allergy meds instead of antibiotics. (I'm still a bit unclear on how a doctor could tell the difference, since it sounds like we both reacted to ingredients and my situation cleared up just fine with antibiotics. Anyone care to venture a guess?)

Anyway, I've babbled enough here. This is basically my long-winded way of saying that I'll be sticking with my Retin-A, PMM and Clarisonic, thankyouverymuch.

Let's talk about this:

Do you think facials are good for your skin?
Or do you think they're a waste of time, money and potentially dangerous?
Ever had a facial-from-hell experience of your own? Please share!